The Sabres entered last season as a joke and they ended it with hope.
It was just a completely different vibe around the team in the last quarter of the season and you can feel that something special is brewing here.
Are they a playoff team?
I don’t think that they are quite there yet, but I do think this will be similar to last season in the sense that it will be another year of growth.
The 2022-2023 season will be an interesting one, to say the least. The Sabres are injecting more youth into their roster and there will be several storylines to follow as the season progresses.
With that being said, here are five bold predictions for the Buffalo Sabres in 2023.
1. Ryan Johnson, Devon Levi, and Erik Portillo will all sign an ELC at the end of their college seasons
At this point, Devon Levi seems to be a lock to sign his entry-level contract at the conclusion of Northeastern’s season. Levi was arguably the best goaltender in all of college hockey last season and he has aspirations to be even better this year with his eyes set on winning the Hobey Baker.
Although Levi is seemingly a lock to sign, many believe that is not the case for Ryan Johnson and Erik Portillo. In general, with the discussions about whether or not Johnson or Portillo will sign with the Sabres, a lot of the reasoning for why they won’t sign just doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.
When Johnson was drafted, everyone knew it was going to take some time for him to get to the NHL level. He never had an ultra-high ceiling, and that is still the case. But the notion that he wouldn’t want to be in Buffalo just because Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Mattias Samuelsson are on the team is a lazy excuse in my eyes. Johnson has played the right side quite a bit at the University of Minnesota and I believe he can do it at the professional level as well. I fully expect Johnson to sign his ELC with the Sabres after his college season ends, and he will likely play games in Buffalo to burn the year of his contract.
When it comes to Johnson, the Sabres would be entitled to a compensatory 2nd round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft in the event that he does not sign with the Sabres by August 15th, 2023. This is not a very common occurrence, 1st round picks who aren’t hardcore busts typically sign with the teams that drafted them. The only outliers in the last 20 years are Blake Wheeler and Kevin Hayes.
Erik Portillo is the odds-on favorite of the three to test free agency. Before we even get into it here, if the Sabres are aware that Portillo won’t be signing with them, I would be shocked if he wasn’t traded for a mid-round draft pick. Portillo is a very solid goaltender prospect and assuming he doesn’t have a horrible season at Michigan this year, I’m sure there will be a team or two who would be willing to part with an asset to lure him to sign.
Now let’s put ourselves in the position of Erik Portillo for a second. He was a third-round pick and was one of the best goaltenders in college hockey last season. A lot of people are just assuming that he doesn’t want to be here just because Devon Levi is “the guy.” Now, Levi may very well be the guy in Buffalo, but let’s remember that neither of these players has played a second of pro hockey yet. Who’s to say that Portillo can’t outplay Levi and be the starter in Buffalo? I’m sure that Portillo is a competitive goaltender and is probably confident in his abilities. If you were Portillo wouldn’t you like to believe that you could beat out Devon Levi?
Another thing to keep in mind here for Portillo is, by all accounts, school is very important to him and his family. I will never blame a prospect for wanting to further his education. I do not believe that Portillo has some diabolical plan to screw over Buffalo.
I know it’s easy to still feel jaded by Jimmy Vesey and Cal Petersen, but I think all three will sign their ELCs this Spring.
2. Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen will be traded
Despite the signing of Eric Comrie, I still believe that goaltending is the biggest question mark for the Sabres this season. With Craig Anderson returning for another season, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen will start the season in Rochester. Luukkonen has fared well during his stints in Buffalo but both were cut short due to injuries. His numbers in Rochester have been mediocre as well, but he didn’t exactly have the greatest defensive corps in front of him.
I would’ve preferred to see the Sabres give Luukkonen a chance right off the bat in Buffalo this season. With Anderson and Comrie in the mix, I find it very hard to believe that Luukkonen will pass either of them and force one to be demoted. Luukkonen’s only realistic pathway to Buffalo is if there is an injury. Anderson is in his 40s and missed a significant amount of time last season, so it is feasible to think that Luukkonen will play about 10 games or more in Buffalo.
Looking into the future, let’s say that Comrie is average to below average as the starter and they move on from Anderson next offseason. How confident are you in a tandem of Comrie and Luukkonen for the 2023-2024 season? Right now, I would say not confident at all. By the trade deadline, it should be pretty evident if they will be comfortable with that tandem for the following year. If they are not comfortable, I can see Luukkonen being shipped out of town for a mid-round pick. Nothing against Luukkonen, but if the goaltending isn’t great this season, it may be time for them to make a splash and acquire a proven starting caliber goaltender. Maybe he is a part of that package but, it’s unlikely that he remains in the organization if they acquire a starting goaltender to play in front of Comrie for the 23-24 season.
3. Zemgus Girgensons will be traded at the trade deadline for a first-round pick
Zemgus Girgensons is the longest-tenured Buffalo Sabre and has now been in the organization for a decade. He has been here through all of the suffering and has turned into a leader as the Sabres look to turn the corner. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kevyn Adams and company attempt to extend Girgensons before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer, but I would understand if Girgensons wants a change of scenery.
Girgensons and Okposo have gotten a lot of the credit for helping turn the culture around after the Jack Eichel trade last season.
Girgensons has become a very useful bottom-six player for the Sabres and has developed into a player who has consistently been able to put up double-digit goals while playing on the 4th line. He is one of their better defensive forwards and is a reliable penalty killer, the type of player that playoff teams will want to add as a rental for their playoff runs.
When you factor in everything, I think that it would need to be a big overpay for the Sabres to give up Girgensons. It may sound crazy, but I think that it’s possible that the Sabres can get a first-round pick for Girgensons at the trade deadline.
4. Tage Thompson scores 45 goals
When we look back on the 2021-2022 season, Tage Thompson’s breakout year was easily the best storyline for the Sabres.
Don Granato shocked the hockey world by putting Thompson at center and he thrived in his new role.
I think Thompson will make even more strides in his game this season and continue to improve.
I’m predicting that he reaches 45 goals this season and evolves into a true number one center for the Sabres. With how his career started, I can see why some may be skeptical of Thompson replicating what he did last season. He was rushed into the NHL after being acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly trade. He was a healthy scratch on many occasions when he would be better off getting top-six minutes in Rochester. You name it, everything that could’ve been done wrong under the Jason Botterill regime was done when it came to Tage Thompson’s development.
I can see the skepticism for this prediction, but I’m a believer. This is a big year for Thompson, his new 7-year contract extension will kick in for the 2023-2024 season. And even before that contract kicks in, there will be huge expectations for Thompson.
5. Two Calder Trophy Nominees
I am predicting that Owen Power and Jack Quinn will both be nominated for the Calder Trophy.
Having two players nominated for the Calder would be a very impressive accomplishment for the Sabres. The last time one team had two nominees was back in 2013 when Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were nominated after their rookie seasons in Tampa Bay.
Defensemen winning the Calder Trophy has been somewhat rare in the last 10 years, withonly three defensemen winning the trophy over that period of time. Aaron Ekblad, Cale Makar, and Moritz Seider have all taken home the award, and I believe that Owen Power will join that group this season.
The reigning Calder Trophy winner, Moritz Seider, posted an impressive 50 point season for the Detroit Red Wings last season, and I believe that stat line is going to be very close to what we will see out of Owen Power in 2023. With Rasmus Dahlin taking the role as the power play one quarterback, I can see some skepticism about Power’s offensive upside for this season. With the improved roster and development of their young stars, I also believe that the second power play unit will be successful with Power leading from the back-end. We saw what Owen Power could do in a very small sample size last year and I think he is due for a great rookie season.
The second Sabres nominee for the Calder Trophy will be Jack Quinn. We all saw what Quinn did in Rochester last season and it was nothing short of special. I think he will carry over that success and seamlessly fit in and make an impact at the NHL level. The Sabres have been dying for more goal scorers throughout this playoff drought and Jack Quinn will certainly add a lot of goals over the course of his NHL career. I am predicting that Quinn will reach 25 goals in his rookie season and that should be good enough for him to get Calder consideration.
Whether the Sabres make the playoffs or not, having two players nominated for the Calder would be a nice success.